The Kennedy ethos: sharing joys and grief with strangers

It was totally in keeping with the family ethos that Sen. Ted Kennedy’s wife, Vicki, his son, Patrick (a member of Congress from Rhode Island), and other family members spent hours this week greeting those in line at the Kennedy presidential library to pay their respects to the family patriarch.

This continues to be a family with an extraordinary sense of responsibility and connection to people whose lives bore little resemblance to their own.

Years ago, I was the editor of several community weeklies on Cape Cod, one of which served the town of Barnstable, which includes the community of  Hyannis Port, home base of the Kennedys. I lived in bicycling distance of the compound and would occasionally ride through their neighborhood.

For as much mystique as “the Kennedy compound” carries in American life, it is a fairly ordinary-looking place, at least in that neighborhood of  old-money beach retreats. If you don’t know where to look, it might not be clear whether it’s that fenced-off property, or the one on the other side of the street — until a tour bus swings by and pauses for a couple of minutes, anyway.

Working at the newspaper with local people who’d grown up around the Kennedys, I heard stories, mostly about the ordinariness of their interactions with family members: Running into matriarch Rose at Mass at St. Francis Xavier; seeing Ethel, widow of Bobby, en route to the Stop & Shop; catching glimpses of the younger kids playing on the beach, or of the young adults out with friends at a local bar.

Yet the mystique held, even among those who fixed the roofs on Kennedy houses and changed the tires on the family cars

So when as editor of the Cape Cod News I had the chance to attend a picnic at the compound, of course I made sure to go. As luck had it, my mother was visiting at the time, and she happily went with me. This was despite having broken her pelvis and wrist in a fall a few days earlier, limiting her mobility.

The picnic was hosted by then-Rep. Joe Kennedy, Robert’s son, who represented the 8th Massachusetts Congressional District. The guest list included reporters and editors from around the state and from Washington who covered the congressman and his family. That alone was unusual. It’s certainly not common for members of Congress to invite the folks who report on them to drop by for a cookout.

It was an extraordinary day. With Mom’s wrist in a cast and her obvious difficulty walking she attracted lots of attention and frequent offers of assistance. Probably half a dozen members of the Kennedy family — mostly the congressman’s siblings — made a point of stopping to ask about Mom’s injuries and make sure we were managing the beach terrain well enough.  They chatted with us about her travel from Arizona, about their work, about the weather and the food. Normal stuff, but heady when the chit-chat is with people typically seen on television.

Then there were the house tours. It wasn’t enough that this immensely famous family had invited a couple hundred members of the media and their families for a picnic on the beach made famous in unforgettable footage of the Kennedys’ touch football games. They also welcomed us to walk through a couple of the family’s houses, the main one, home of Rose Kennedy, and Ethel’s.

I remember being struck by the normalness of each. Ethel’s was bright and sunny, lots of casual beach furniture with yellow print cushions and grandchildren’s toys — Big Wheels and Playskool kitchens —  tucked out of the way of foot traffic.

Though every step obviously caused her some pain, Mom didn’t miss the chance to visit Rose Kennedy’s house. We paused to search for familiar faces among the dozens of family photos arrayed on tables and a piano. We marveled at the tiny armchair, with slightly worn upholstery, positioned in front of a television, in easy reach of the compact elevator that the then 90-something Mrs. Kennedy used to get upstairs.

The impression was simultaneously of visiting a museum — where else would you see so many images of such famous people on display and in a setting you’ve seen countless times on the news — and of intruding on a neighbor’s home while she was out running errands.

This week, as reporters described the Kennedy family members spending time to greet people at the library where Ted Kennedy’s body rested, I was reminded of that afternoon on the Cape.

Here was a grieving family, their every step filmed and photographed and scrutizined, not just at one loved one’s death, but twice in a few weeks and regularly throughout their lives. They had every right to be hiding from the public if they could manage it.

But despite the aggravation and heartache such incessant attention must bring, the Kennedys remain not just aware of the voyeuristic need the American public has to share some part of their lives with them, but willing to let us do that, even at a time of great personal grief.

The news has been full of stories of ways in which Ted Kennedy quietly did things like tutoring Washington schoolchildren in reading and attending the funerals of every Massachusetts resident who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The reports from outside the Kennedy library reinforce that the next generation of Kennedys has taken to heart the example Ted set and that Mom and I experienced that afternoon in Hyannis Port.

They understand the peculiar place their family holds in Americans’ hearts and minds. There’s no doubt a symbiotic element to the relationship. But whether it means letting strangers traipse through Grandma’s living room or taking time from your own grief to work a crowd, the Kennedys show great generosity in letting us feel connected to them. They set a challenging example of how to rise above your own pain to understand and accommodate the needs of others.

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17 Responses to The Kennedy ethos: sharing joys and grief with strangers

  1. Yes lets canonize this major supporter of abortion now! Please let us have lots of puff pieces of a person who had some good qualities but also supported abortion, euthanasia, ESCR, cloning, homosexual marriage.

    Great generosity except towards the unborn. For them he voted to allow sucking their brains out moments before being born.

    I pray for his eternal soul and that he meets God’s wide mercy, but please articles like this that don’t reference the major contradictions to his Catholic faith our sickening.

  2. The Kennedy’s are just people after all. Imagine that.

    I hate to break it to you, but that “extraordinary” event you attended with a couple hundred other media members was nothing more than a political investment this is now paying dividends; at least in the case of an impressionable and naive woman named Patricia who even after all these years is still agog over America’s Royal family.

    Your gushing little column is exactly the sort of return on investment the Kennedy machine expected for holding their noses and condescending to allow you, your mom and other members of the proletariat to glimpse their fabled compound up close on that day you’ll never forget.

    If you weren’t earning a paycheck by writing for an organization that operates with money lured out of the pockets of unsuspecting Catholics, your column would be funny. As it is, it’s simply pathetic.

  3. michael says:

    Watching C-Span it seems Red Kennedy loved everybody but the unborn

  4. Michael Mlekoday says:


    I find your incredible lack of sympathy towards the Kennedys, and your inability to conceive of them as human beings who are motivated by more than just greed or the thirst for power, unsettling. These are human beings–which means that, yes, they’re sinners, but they’re also created in God’s image and capable of sacrifice and love.

    I hope you find room for more sympathy and compassion in your life.

    Patricia: nice article. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  5. Joseph H. May says:

    Think we have a problem with our diocese leadership? WHY was Ms. Zapor’s article printed at all; and since printed why was the opportunity (and responsibility) missed to counter her yummy misguided glorification with the the realities of our Catholic faith. He was first and foremost a politician, not a Catholic true to the faith.

  6. Fr. William J Kuchinsky says:

    May the Good Lord comfort the Kennedy family in their time of grief. And certainly it would be good to pray for the Peaceful Repose of His Soul. As Michael notes we’re all “sinners.”
    But hopefully not all of us are direct cooperators/enablers of the culture of death, which is a pretty big and dark shadow to overcome-regardless of the “good” which may have been accomplished. Abortion, euthanasia, ESCR, cloning, homosexual marriage… It is so kind of the USCCB to supply this site for us “to share our joys and grief with strangers” – may the Lord give them courage and strength to help undo so much of the damage this poor soul did. May they help their flocks understand the magnitude and horror of the attacks on innocent human life that we may be one with them in advancing the “Gospel of Life.”
    Yes, God Rest His Soul. But may He also have mercy on us for permitting the henious evils which the departed helped to advance.

  7. Michael,

    Of course the Kennedy’s are capable of sacrificial love. They are also capable of sacrificing human beings to further their political aspirations. The Kennedy clan, with the help of certain dissenting theologians, literally formulated the strategic plan that would pave the way for generations of pro-abortion “Catholics.”

    Edward Kennedy’s personal legacy is one of political expediency trumping Catholic moral principals as a means to a self-serving end. This is not conjecture; it’s a matter of fact.

    I can imagine how unsettling this sort of reality must be for people like Patricia, and apparently you as well, who would rather believe in the fairytale that says Ted Kennedy left us a fine example. He most certainly did not.

    Your desire to dwell in Camelot, and my unwillingness to join you, says nothing about our relative capacity for sympathy and compassion. You presume far too much.

  8. Khanski says:

    Let us also pray for the 40+ million souls aborted or left to die. Let us also remember the soul of the young woman left to drown at Chappaquiddik.

  9. BJ says:

    Please stop acting like this guy is a saint. He was a pro abortion “catholic” who should have been excommunicated and not allowed to have a catholic funeral!

  10. Mary says:

    Ted Kennedy may have been the prodigal son who are we to judge a man’s soul. We are all sinners. If God can forgive we must also. May God have mercy on his soul and rest in peace. Amen

  11. Peter Comaskey says:

    This man through his voting, promoting and advocating abortion was a mass murderer of the unborn (50,000,000 aborted babies) who personally led the effort to sustain Clinton’s veto of partial-birth bans, not once but twice. Can anyone including the clergy tell me whats the differance between him and some Nazi who ordered the murder of many people. The result was the same–millions murdered

  12. Michael Mlekoday says:

    Peter, I can indeed tell you the difference between a pro-choice Senator and a Nazi officer.

    The Nazi Government actively tried to exterminate the Jewish people as a whole.

    Senators who support the right of women to choose abortion are (1) not actively trying to kill anybody, (2) not trying to exterminate an entire race, and (3) not systematically condemning anybody to death.

    Nazis didn’t pass a law that said “If you want, you can kill Jews.” They systematically sought out and destroyed Jews.

    The U.S. Government is not ordering people to kill their children.

    Abortion in the United States is a tragedy built on the poor choices of millions of individuals. The Shoah in Nazi Germany was a systematic extermination that left no choice to anybody.

    It’s different.

  13. David says:

    Now they are saying including his priest that he was a good Catholic. This is sick. They say he went to confession. If he did then the priest under penalty of sinning himself had to make him sign a statement or anounce to the world that he was sorry for the death of millions on his hands . If the priest heard his confession and did not require a public statement then the future millions killed will be on his hands as everyone on the side of killing children get away with murder again with no Catholic proabort politician ever having to repent to any of us who they try to convince that Jesus loves the sin and the sinner, especially the sin of KILLING CHILDREN! His priest is a guttless wonder who needs more prayers than Ted himself . It pains me to have to say that but I am sick of these ordained priests of God kissing the asses of the powerful as children are murdered . God help all of us sinners . Oh , thanks Micheal , ok its different , are you happy? Ted is still swimming in the blood of the millions he helped to murder this his actions , not just inaction. Wake up !

  14. Fr. William J Kuchinsky says:

    Dear Michael, Although I’m not one to jump into any Nazi comparisons but your reasoning is flawed.
    A blog doesn’t give the opportunity to address your flawed logic. – To recognize as a Government a “right” that is nobody’s to give (to kill the innocent) does not help to properly form the consciences of those women who made “poor choices” – so it is complicit in those deaths (and the wounding of those women who have to live with the horrible reality-coming to realize the true nature of their “choice”)
    Not trying to exterminate an entire race? Well, wrong there:
    Planned Parenthood was born of the eugenics movement (the Nazi’s conveniently “imported” their philosophy).
    Perhaps, as a primer, you might check out:
    Blacks are @10% of our population but account for 40% of the total abortions. See what the courageous Bishop Holley (Wash, DC) has to say:
    and then pray that more folks like you might see the truth.

  15. Fr. William J Kuchinsky says:

    Michael, Please don’t be so quick to erroneously reject out of hand the comparison – although the analogy offered wouldn’t be my choice to use! However, your arguments to refute it are no better then saying the difference between the parties mentioned is that one had a funny mustache and spoke German; the other was an Irishman that liked to sail.
    This link will take you to the specific page (the original link given was for their main page).
    Check it out. It’s well documented. – I stumbled into the eugenics movement and “The Negro Project” of Margaret Sanger, et al many years ago while just “poking around” at a library – reading THEIR OWN works. PLEASE: for the good of your Nation, as it seems you have a youthful exuberance, be really informed to direct your idealistic energies toward a solution to the “Culture of Death” – and it’s racist, inhuman, anti-Christic programme. Please!

  16. Lilimarlene says:

    Today’s gospel reading says it all and nails Teddy Kennedy for the phony hypocrite he was, as well, all of the pharasaical Catholic liberal Bishops who in their silence condoned and joined Kennedy. And of course the clan and the entire democratic party.

    Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
    He responded,
    “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
    This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
    in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines human precepts.
    You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

    Teaching as doctrines human precepts. Yes, doctrines such as Michael espouses and an orthodox priest, God bless him, tries to disabuse Michael of.

    And what He said, well I thought about Teddy when I heard it again today.

    ““From within people, from their hearts,
    come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
    adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
    licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
    All these evils come from within and they defile.”

    What a fitting reading on this Kennedy weekend.

  17. Jim Lackey says:

    Deacon Greg Kandra has a wonderful idea on his blog this afternoon that we’re going to follow here: close off comments on all things Kennedy in order for everyone to chill.

    You can read his reasons — and ours — for why he’s doing that here:

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